This passage of life writing comes from my own experiences. I have written a diary since I was a teenager so the material is a truthful account. My daily diary comprises sketches and photographs alongside words to illustrate events. This served as a useful memory jog for the factual events that surrounded the births of my goddaughter. The other source of information for my cousin came from a family photo album. The loss of my older cousin at birth is rarely spoken about in my family but my aunt has been my brave confidant. I hope that I have been able to show that if any good can come from the tragedy then it is the collective support from surprising places. But tragedy reverberates and with this comes the loss of friends and perspective. An exercise set by the lecturers helped to separate fact from fiction when researching this period of my life and to remain objective.
The emotions that I recall feeling at these times were harder to articulate. I drew on both my diary and advice posted on the group mentioned. I had to make many drafts to give a balanced result for the final piece. It helped to write a statement of intent to keep the piece on track. This statement was to produce a life-writing piece that addresses the impact of childlessness, which challenges a reader who had never experienced this. They may be influenced by media reports that are both negative and positive. I wanted to appeal to those who had suffered loss including those friends of mine who are mentioned in this piece who may find a bleak familiarity.
An exploration of a through-line enabled me to place my cousin and my aunt as the connecting pieces. The dates and time shift were originally the links. Subsequent drafts of this piece introduced my aunt and cousin and it became clear to me that they were the through-line. The time line came to represent the void between those who have children and those who do not in a way that is not accusatory but factual. The length between each event is deliberately placed and truthful, yet show how life moves on whilst the childless stay in a suspended state.
Life writing proved very therapeutic to me and I'm grateful to author Rhian Ivory and the tutors at The Open University for their excellent tuition and expert advice that enabled me to gain my degree with honours and find a place to express my sorrow.
A post by Berenice Smith, founder of Walk In Our Shoes and World Childless Week Champion
5th August 1981. I first held my cousin in my arms when I was ten years old. As an adult, I understand that ten years is a long time to wait for the arrival of a child.
The knitted fabric that covered my parent’s sofa scratched my bare legs as it still does. My cousin Amy was a wriggly bundle of cotton and wool. She smelt of sour milk and talcum powder. I listened to my mum telling me how to hold her and the click of my dad’s camera as he took photographs. He picked up my cousin and exchanged her for a cold, plastic doll. I cried and threw Sindy across the room.
I know it's a long time because my aunt and uncle lost their first baby but at 10 I don't know how someone can lose a baby but it's best not to ask.
August bank holiday, 2001. I am stuck inside a hot bus with a stupid helium balloon and a bag of mother and baby paraphernalia on my way to the maternity hospital. The balloon persistently wraps around a handrail despite my efforts to keep it under control. A gaggle of elderly pensioners are trying to use this comedy to engage me in conversation. They tell me that it will be my turn soon. I smile politely and pretend that my phone is ringing to escape their conjecture. I wonder if reaching 65 blesses people with psychic ability.
I put my irritation down to lack of sleep, as I have been awake early stacking my best friend’s fridge with home baked meals. I won’t mention the lack of sleep; it will mean nothing in the coming months to my friend who is giving birth to her first child. The baby is her first and will be a daughter called Lucy. She’s an unexpected arrival after a fling and the parents are still in shock. I decided that I am going to be useful because it beats self-pity.
It is a year since I was pregnant. I wish to forget that my husband and I had three months before our baby decided to leave this world. Today is not the day to be haunted but events seem to tell me that day is a day for ghosts. As the bus engine ticks over, I look out of the window at parents with pushchairs and generations of families parading on the park with footballs and ice cream. I daresay that there were students and dogs too but I did not see them.
18th March 2004. I am laden with another balloon, tapping at the front door of my best friend’s house. My goddaughter, Lucy, welcomes me in. She is a silent whirlwind of candy hugs with her index finger glued to tightly closed lips. She is dressed in an inappropriate fairy outfit with odd socks and her hair hasn’t been brushed. The house looks a mess yet feels like home. Lucy's dad hugs me. The hard bristles of his new beard scratch my cheek. He hands me a hot coffee. It’s been a long journey listening to hammering rain and my beating heart.
I tiptoe upstairs. Lucy leads the way, her hot hand clutches mine and she pushes open the door to her parent’s bedroom. I feel silly and inappropriate with the balloon. I think back to the meals I cooked and the cakes I baked when Lucy was born. I wish I had found the strength in my heart to make the effort again. Lucy looks so grown up now and responsible as she strokes the fine hair on her new born baby brother's head.
I leave the note on her Dad’s chest. He is fast asleep on the sofa, unaware of the miracle of silence around him. There are no more tea bags and I am desperate for a cup. Lucy and I have spent hours helping him conquer a dangerous pile of washing up and cleaning the sticky kitchen. We have matched stray party shoes in the hall and I want to tackle the ironing. The note tells him that we’ve popped to the shops through the park. I wonder if he trusts this childless woman with his daughter. I leave my car keys on the coffee table in clear sight as security.
The fresh air is welcome as we walk through the damp air and sodden grass. On impulse, we buy a hot dog and share the bittersweet onions. Lucy smells of them and spicy sausages as she cuddles me, demanding my attention that she knows I’ll give endlessly. The lady on food stall says she’s a lovely daughter and I don’t correct her. We sing on the way home, swinging the plastic bag of biscuits and tea bags. To my relief there are no police or worried parents on the doorstep, just the sound of the kettle boiling and football on the television. When I leave, I hug all the family. It’s the last day that I voluntarily hold a baby.
30th August 2011. It’s our wedding anniversary. My parents think they have woken us by muddling the time zones to wish well from Canada where they are on holiday. It is strange to talk of their experiences whilst filled with unspoken trepidation. They do not know that we’ve been awake since we went to bed. We have alternated lying at the ceiling with rolling over to watch the clock. My parents do not know why we are sleepless. Two weeks ago, two embryos were returned to my body. It was the culmination of 6 weeks of twice-daily injections, a cocktail of carefully timed medicine and twice weekly hospital trips. The routine of alarm clock, shower and train to work has been replaced by an even early awakening to check my symptoms. In the early morning sunrise I prep the needle and wince as I deliver the first injection of the day. If I wasn’t awake I am now as the cold sting filters into my blood. In the quiet still of the house, I imagine I can hear it trickling and changing me.
Dear friends who haunt a Facebook group devoted to IVF are out there somewhere waiting with me. We are a pack of twenty women aiming for the same ideal of motherhood. I have met a few of them. In these voiceless exchanges, I learn that Penny lost her twins at twenty-two weeks last year. Penny speaks of having to battle human resource issues for pregnant women at the business that she and her husband run together. We share bitter laughter over women who only have to look at a man to conceive and rant at those who smoke with one hand on their bump. We forget that parenthood that brings it’s own challenges no matter how conception took place. It always strikes me that this is sad but purposeful bond that we share.
This early morning disruption seems purposeful too. It is a step closer for between treatment means nothing happens. We know that this invasive process that has become almost acceptable. Friends questions my need and offer to lend children for trips out. I cannot articulate the grief I feel for fear of being deemed a female Fagin. A vast canon has opened up and I do not know how to cross it. My aunt calls and tells me that she has felt the same way. My mum tells me that children are not all they are ‘cracked up to be’ and I am stunned into silence. The hormones have dulled my understanding.
Yesterday, whilst I was waiting for the train to work, I tried to view the sunshine as a positive sign of new life. Then I saw one lone magpie dancing on the railway line and reasoned that avoiding the pavement cracks should balance the bad luck. I distracted myself by buying a newspaper. Inside I read that there were 1,200 babies born from IVF in the UK last year. I think of those who were lost before their parents were able to celebrate the thin blue line. The enormity of how many couples that might be momentary stir me from that isolation I felt as I stood there studiously avoiding magpies. I have also avoided commuters’ elbows that might disturb a fledgeling baby or nudge an empty space. I no longer know my body.
The alarm breaks into my thoughts and my blood runs cold. It is time to take the pregnancy test.
20th November 2011. I cannot speak about the scan last week. I remember my legs giving way as I stood up and I know that the bruise on my forehead is evidence I fell to the floor. In the midst of my grief I am talking to my aunt. We shed tears for my lost babies and her stillborn child who was born a week before me. Then we plaster on a smile and serve tea and cakes, balancing the time between dates we remember and the ones we want to forget.